Humans from earth, pt II

20 01 2014

Why ontological?

I like to make everything ontological, is one answer, but also because this is the level at which the question of being qua being occurs.

What does it mean to be human?

I suggested in the last post that biology may be a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition of humanness, and I hold to that—for now. It is entirely possible that at some point in the future humanness will be extended to non-biologically entities, although I don’t know that such recognition will be so extended during my lifetime. (After I’m dead? Let the living sort it out.)

More immediately tantalizing—and in a kind of reverse-example to offer to TWO—is the de facto semi-recognition extended to chimpanizees by the National Institutes of Health in their decision to restrict the kinds of federally-funded research which can now be performed using chimps.

TWO (or someone) might argue that this half-recognition is extended on the basis of biology, but if the biology is what matters—if biology is all that’s ever mattered—then why was such protection not extended until now?

Thus, I want to bring forward something which I referenced earlier: the necessity of recognition. It is not enough for one to have the biological substrate of the human, but that those with that substrate be recognized as human.

Recognized by whom? Well, that’s the kicker, ain’t it? It’s an inside game: those who are inside give the status to themselves, and decide who/what else gets to enter or may be forced to leave, and/or those with sufficient leverage  either “break” in and force recognition or so change the terms that they take the insider status for themselves.

In other words, it’s about power, which is an historically-contingent phenomenon.

Now, how did anyone come to recognize themselves as human? That’s a very damned good question, one worthy of a dissertation, but even without knowing the origin of this claimed status, it’s clear that some of claimed that status for them/ourselves, and on the basis of that status have granted them/ourselves certain protections and privileges not given to those lacking such status.

TWO argues that DNA (et. al.) ought to be the standard for recognition as it is “scientifically knowable in a more or less concrete fashion (thus my DNA point above) with a high degree of certainty and clarity”, and, again, as a practical matter, this has a lot going for it. I even think my reservations about the messiness of biology (e.g., what of those with +/- 46 chromosomes) can be assuaged with a very few addenda, such as “created with the gametes and borne of Homo sapiens” to cover those statistically outside of the norm.

(This should hold at least until we figure out artificial wombs and begin decanting our offspring, but again: I’ll be dead when this happens, so let the living figure it out.)

Others might argue for another standard—that we are created in the image of God, say (and let those who make this argument figure out what that means)—or add in various requirements for consciousness or certain characteristics or abilities: the crucial point is that the standard be settled (enough) for us to make practical decisions about those who are human (and not).

Well, that’s one crucial point: the other crucial point is that the standard doesn’t set itself.

We set the standard, and we do so based on commitments to forms of knowledge we find most compelling.

For TWO, the knowledge gained from biology is most compelling, and thus for him ought to serve as the standard. It’s not unreasonable—clarity, intersubjectivity (i.e., “scientifically knowable” by anyone who cares to know it), and concreteness are pretty damned good reasons—but it can’t justify itself, i.e., the reasons to adopt the “Homo sapiens standard” are external to the standard itself.

Huh, not being clear. What I mean to say is the establishment of the Homo sapiens standard  is one thing, and why we should take that standard as dispositive for humanness is another. I may like clarity, intersubjectivity, and concreteness, but why should those be the qualities we use to judge the standard?

This can lead into an epistemological dissolve, but I’ll bring it back to the practical in a moment. Do let me make one further point before doing so: that Homo sapiens is itself an historical construction, and that there has not always been agreement on who belongs in this species.  Again, we could slide down into the abyss on this observation (always a fun ride down, but perhaps a bit much for this particular conversation), but, again, I want to bring that point back up to the practical level.

And then, finally, on to those examples TWO requested. On to part III!


We’re humans from earth, pt. I

20 01 2014

*Updated* I just noted that the comment TWO referred to earlier as perhaps being stuck in moderation was in fact so stuck. I just noticed it now, so haven’t responded to it in either this post or in pt II (which I’ve already written); if necessary, I’ll make the necessary adjustments to my response in pt III.

A bit late—laziness and fun colluded to prevent a posting before this—but finally, on the instability of the human.

First, the initial claim, and The Wet One’s challenge to the claim and some back and forth (way way down the thread—and ignoring TWO’s snark about ivory towers):

ab: the “human” is a constructed being, so to look for the human in history is to make basic choices about what & how one looks at that history.

two: It’s constructed to a certain extent, yes, but there really is an irreducible humanness that really does exists. It’s visible in electron microscopes and the like if you need to look. It’s common to all of us humans and is about as constructed as is gravity or the sun.

Some back & forth on the biology itself (interesting in its own right, but not the issue in this post), then:

two: Biology isn’t a good foundation? What is better? I guess as a genetics student (undergrad only), I find that response kinda wanting. I’m well aware that there are plenty of morphological and genetic aberations that deviate quite widely from the norm, but for our purposes here, I think you and I (perhaps not all, but you and I at any rate) know what the norm is to determine “humanity.” Extra chromosomes, polydactly, other morphological aberations don’t really change this. It still falls within the realm of “human” for all intents and purposes. Don’t abstract away a reasonably concrete reality with ideas out at the 9th or 10th standard deviation from the norm. It just doesn’t seem to me to be terribly pragmatic or useful.

ab: At one level, there is the matter of what counts as “reasonably concrete realities”; I think this varies across time and place.

Related to this is my disagreement with the contention that those outside of the norm have fallen “within the realm of the ‘human’ for all intents and purposes’. They most assuredly have not and to the extent they do today is due to explicit efforts to change our understanding of the human.

two: [to paraphrase: examples from past and present, please!]

So there it is, in an ungainly nutshell.

First, to TWO’s contention Biology isn’t a good foundation? What is better?

I think it can and often does serve as a foundation, and as I noted in the previous ramble, I ought to have been more explicit about that. There is a certain practicality, today, in going along with the notion that any being borne of those already recognized as human, and who takes a form which is more-or-less similar to those already recognizably human, is herself human. Much of contemporary (bio)ethics and politics is predicated upon this biologically-based recognition.

And I do, in fact, talk about this in my bioethics class. Biology—genetics—matters! As I note, while we share almost all of our genes with chimpanzees and other apes, the fact that we are so morphologically (among other things) distinct suggests that those few genetic differences are powerful.

That said, I hold to my original contention as to the variability of the human, and the fact that while biology may be a necessary condition for recognition as human (tho’ this may change as AI evolves; subject for another post, perhaps), it is not sufficient.

Thus we may—I’ll let TWO speak for him (I think) -self—have arrived at the source of our disagreement: TWO takes biology as having an “is-ness” which is apparent, “pragmatic”, “useful” (to use two terms taking from another part of his comment), which obviousness marks it as having a (near?) absolute quality.

I don’t believe it has an absolute quality (and this is quite apart from our agreed-upon framework of evolution), but instead an historical quality. He thinks it is more or less fixed; I do not.

On a practical level*, our disagreement isn’t so great, as I noted, above. And that I think the human is historically contingent does not mean that the meaning isn’t durable, or stable for long terms.

Still, I think that the mention of embryos and fetuses is apt in highlighting that even at this practical level there is some disagreement as to status of entities which clearly share our biological material.

TWO responded in a comment to my last post

does anyone think that human embryo or fetuses (or those sourced from a human) would turn into anything else other than a human adult were it permitted to follow its natural journey through development? Would it ever become a cat, a blue whale, a crab or a robin? Does anyone doubt this?

I don’t, at least outside of science-fiction speculations, but note the “would turn into” and of the necessity of “development”. If the biology were dispositive in and of itself, no such development would be necessary—and, in fact, for pro-lifers, no such development is necessary: the embryo is a human person, full stop.

(Side note: there are all kinds of arguments about personhood out there, some of which I’ve discussed previously, but I don’t want to complicated this discussion even further by bringing in questions of the relationship of personhood to humanness.)

In some ways, the emphasis on development seems, well, an over-emphasis, for precisely the reason TWO points out—that conceptus ain’t gonna turn into a kitty. But insofar as we in the US (and elsewhere) are politically preoccupied with embryos and fetuses, and that a big question at the center of that preoccupation is When does the embryo/fetus become a human [person]?, then at a very practical level, it makes sense to look at development.

Now, you will no doubt have observed that, despite my side-note, I used the term “human person” rather than just “human” or “human being”: this is a concession to the way the question is often framed in ordinary discourse; in the debate over abortion or stem cells, it’s not referred to as the “embryo of Homo sapiens“, but “human embryo”.

For my purposes here that ordinary usage is unfortunate: to make my point as clearly as possible, the argument over the status of the embryo/fetus is not whether it is of the material of Homo sapiens (general agreement: yes), but when that biological material becomes human.

TWO argues that the biology answers the question for itself, but I argue that it cannot.

Which brings me to the ontological level—and part II.


*I am harkening back to my epistemological/ontological/practical distinction in calling this level “practical”: it is the level at which we live our daily lives, and at which politics, and ordinary-ethics (or discussions over “the right thing to do”) take place.